It is somewhat bizarre that two directors with the same name should have such wildly divergent critical perceptions. Paul Thomas Anderson is lauded as some kind of filmmaking genius, the heir to the legendary Robert Altman thanks to his apparent obsession with complex interweaving plotlines involving multiple characters. This was most notable in his breakthrough hit Boogie Nights and 1999’s sprawling Magnolia, and he was recently lauded for last year’s multiple Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood.
This film, however, is directed by the other Paul Anderson – Paul W. S. Anderson – a man best known for making movie adaptations of computer games, from Mortal Kombat back in 1995 through 2002’s Resident Evil and 2004’s Alien vs. Predator (a film based on a game that was based on two film franchises). Yet don’t despair entirely. This Paul Anderson is also the man who brought us the intriguing existentialist sci-fi horror Event Horizon, a film many have pointed to as the inspiration behind last year’s superb Sunshine. He also put in a decent turn in his low-key 1994 debut Shopping, the film that saw Jude Law meet up with his future ex-wife Sadie Frost and help launch his career. Plus, of course, he’s a Brit, born and bred in Newcastle, so we really ought to be rooting
The trouble is, Anderson’s now spent so much of his career doing adaptations of computer games, it’s becoming increasingly hard to see him as anything other than a passably competent hack – if that. Alien vs. Predator, after all, managed to turn one of the coolest concepts for an all-out action spectacle in years into a ponderous, dull mess. Resident Evil took a game hailed for its cinematic atmosphere of brooding, ever-growing suspense and turned it into a trigger-happy shooting spree. He didn’t direct the two Resident Evil follow-ups, but he did write them, and they both followed the same pattern – what was, in the games, an intriguing and frequently genuinely terrifying tale of a gradual zombie takeover of the world became, in Anderson’s hands, something altogether less interesting.
So is there any reason to get excited about this Anderson-written, Anderson-directed remake of the cult 1975 action flick Death Race 2000? The original, while undeniably dated now, remains iconic – not least for being one of the first films to star one Sylvester Stallone, but also for the proto-Darth Vader helmet worn by antihero David Carradine. It was also an intriguing mid-70s satire of post-Watergate political corruption, set as it was in a dystopian future America gone bad. This is epitomized by the titular death race in the film, in which state-sponsored drivers try to kill as many civilians as they can. Could the Watergate-era satire have a place now that we’re in the run-up to seeing the last of President George W Bush? Could this be intended as a film-based allegory, warning of the dangers America faces if it heads down its present course? Could it be transformed into a commentary on civilian deaths in Iraq?
Well, no. All satirical elements have been deliberately removed, the producers insisting proudly that this is a full-on, straight action film, with no subversive elements. Just over-the-top futuristic cars with guns, explosions, deaths and over-the-top stunts. The one possible saving grace? The choice of star: Jason Statham, a man who has somehow managed to raise three of the stupidest action movies of the last few years – The Transporter, The Transporter 2 and Crank – to cult status thanks to a combination of easy charisma and an evident sense of the ridiculous. Don’t expect cleverness, but do expect similarly over-the-top testosterone-fuelled madness.